Eddie Driggers was headed for a mountain vacation when he answered one of the most unexpected calls of his lifetime.
1975-1981: North Charleston Police Department: Patrol officer.january 1982-june 1982: Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office: Patrol officer during a time when Driggers planned to return to a farming life.1982-1986: North Charleston Police Department: Special operations, detective, SWAT team.1986-2006: Charleston County Sheriff’s Office: Criminal investigations captain, jail administrator, assistant sheriff.2008-2012: Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy: Deputy senior chaplain.January 2013: North Charleston Police Department: Chief.
He was summoned to North Charleston City Hall, where his office as a chaplain was located.
The request wasn’t unusual. That’s where he often comforted victims of crime or offered advice to police officers and firefighters.
But this time, the mayor needed him. He turned his car around and listened to Mayor Keith Summey’s pitch: He wanted Driggers to be the city’s new police chief.
The proposal came as a surprise; the current chief had not yet announced his intentions to leave. Driggers needed time to think, to talk with his wife, to pray over a possible return to law enforcement.
But at the end of a four-day weekend in Tennessee, the 59-year-old accepted the chance to restart a career he was reluctant to abandon five years ago. He always has been a “po-lice” at heart, he said, stressing the word’s first syllable.
“I have enjoyed being a police,” Driggers said. “And I enjoy being a police today as much as I did when I was first sworn in.”
Driggers’ task as chief of a department dogged by a negative perception among some of the city’s black communities is a daunting one. But Summey said that Driggers’ Christian approach to policing is what the city needs.
“The chaplain program was the final lesson for him in life for dealing with victims, firefighters, police officers and people who have committed crimes,” the mayor said. “It gave him a true, rounded understanding of what this city needs in a chief.”
Driggers’ first call to law enforcement came when he was 21, and his wife was pregnant with their second son.
After serving two years in the Navy, he had worked jobs for Pepsi, then for his uncle in rural Hemingway. But he longed to return to his hometown.
He answered the phone one day in 1975, and the caller offered him a job at the 3-year-old department in North Charleston. He rushed outside and became sick; he was overwhelmed.
To Al Cannon, his first supervisor who later became Charleston County’s sheriff, the young policeman was enthusiastic and energetic. He made rookie mistakes, too.
During a patrol one evening, Driggers scaled a fence while chasing a suspect. He dropped his walkie-talkie, which was new “and very expensive,” Cannon said.
Cannon found the device and hid it as he questioned the young officer about the fate of his communication equipment. To Driggers’ relief, Cannon eventually revealed the handheld radio.
“I think he’ll tell you that he learned a lesson that night,” Cannon said. “He learned the importance of communication.”
In the following years, it’s that open line of communication, Driggers’ self-professed willingness to listen to others and solve their problems that he credits with his success. But the communication lesson wouldn’t be his last during his days as “a puppy police,” as he puts it.
Once, after pulling away from a gas station on Montague Avenue, he was injured when a vehicle T-boned his Oldsmobile Cutlass. As his gurney was loaded into an ambulance, his police chief, Ed Simmons, was the first person he saw.
“That’s a theme for me now as chief,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to take care of the people here at this police department so they can take care of the people they serve.”
Driggers ventured to develop friendships with co-workers. Through the years, it paid off.
He rose through North Charleston’s ranks as a detective and SWAT specialist, but left the agency in 1986. At the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, he captained the investigations division. His friends knew him as “Dr. Death” because of his frequent television appearances at murder scenes.
Leaving the profession wasn’t a decision entirely up to him; his body had a say.
When Driggers was serving as assistant sheriff, he joined a car chase as a backup unit. During the pursuit, a police cruiser rear-ended his own. A back injury made his job difficult, Cannon said.
“He wasn’t ready to go,” Cannon said. “But he accepted that, physically, he was worn out, that he wasn’t going to be a police officer anymore.”
At Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, Driggers was never far from the action.
Chaplains are supposed to ride with police officers at least four hours every quarter. He figures that he often surpassed that requirement.
He trained with SWAT teams and built on his understanding of police negotiation. He worked with 38 police and fire departments, which offered viewpoints he never had as a lawman, such as how hazardous-materials crews operate.
But he showed a softer side, too, and often employed his Christian grounding during situations of life and death. Senior Chaplain Rob Dewey said Driggers, who cuts a tall and imposing figure, was a “gentle giant.”
In one instance, Dewey remembered, Driggers drove to the beach to comfort the family of a retired police officer who drowned while boating offshore. He helped with the funeral, Dewey said, and performed the wedding for the victim’s daughter a few years later.
“He was very sociable, always out there meeting people,” Dewey said. “He was able to look at an issue and help them get to a healthy end result.”
Being a chief
What exactly Driggers has in store for his latest calling, he said, “is still a little blurry.”
Since he was sworn in Jan. 28, Driggers said without specifying that he’s adapting to the politics of modern-day North Charleston. Certain squads of the Police Department have new names, so he’s relearning them.
He has stepped onto the streets “just to show my face” — sometimes during routine circumstances, such as at a Masters Inn where a guest was suspected of showing off a gun. He wants his command staffers to follow his lead, to get into the field often. He has participated in traffic stops he has noticed just in passing, responded to shooting scenes and comforted family members of a recent homicide victim.
Driggers was last certified as a law enforcement officer about five years ago. Under state law, he needs to complete a six-week refresher course with the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.
He has one year to fulfill the requirements, a combination of remote class work and field training in Columbia primarily intended to get officers up to speed on changes in state laws since they last strapped on their duty belts.
But Driggers’ time dispensing spiritual advice, he said, can only help in his new position. He was ordained as an Episcopal deacon after he was introduced as the new chief. As a reminder, a Bible sits prominently on his desk at City Hall.
In an interim period, former Chief Jon Zumalt relayed to him “how the department got to where it is today through his eyes,” Driggers said. But Summey wants to steer away from certain elements of that past.
About the time Driggers left law enforcement in 2006, skyrocketing violence stamped the city as one of the nation’s most dangerous. Zumalt employed new initiatives that he credited with putting a damper on the crime. Patrol officers saturated problematic neighborhoods and conducted frequent traffic stops.
But some in those predominately black areas have alleged that the practice amounts to racial profiling. Whether the criticism is widespread isn’t the point: Summey knows it’s a sensitivity among black residents, he said.
Driggers first popped into Summey’s mind as a likely candidate a year ago, when Zumalt confided in the mayor his desire to spend time with his ailing mother.
The mayor lauded Zumalt’s efforts to make the department one of the most aggressive and educated ones in the South.
“But in the process, there were some misconceptions that were not the blame of anyone,” Summey said. “It’s very challenging to get to where the community feels appreciated by police and the police feel appreciated by the community.
“Chief Driggers is a guy who’s got the balance to fill that void.”
At least initially, however, the mayor’s choice did the opposite for some of the department’s critics.
Local members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said he should have considered candidates already in the city’s department or others nationwide. Ed Bryant, president of the North Charleston NAACP chapter, said residents should have had a chance to inspect candidates’ qualifications, both in experience and education.
Zumalt instilled a college requirement among his commanders. Driggers earned a degree at Trident Technical College, where he took classes like one about Satanism. He also has completed psychology coursework at the College of Charleston, but he does not have a bachelor’s degree.
“He could be the best chief in the world, or he could be the worst chief in world,” Bryant said. “I just don’t know him.”
Zumalt frequently butted heads with Bryant and other NAACP officials. Both sides aired their grievances in online postings and newspaper articles. But Driggers invited the NAACP back to the table because he doesn’t like to “build fires between each other that we can’t cross.”
He envisions church leaders assuming a prominent role in advising the police. In his time as a chaplain, he saw how residents affected by crime latched on to neighborhood leaders. Using those figures to “get at the people we serve” is vital, he said.
The most controversial moves of Zumalt’s tenure could merit revisiting, he said. He declined to devise any new crime-fighting measures before he “can understand the landscape.”
The initiatives may need polishing, he said, but he plans to stick with the proven programs because “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel if it’s rolling well.”
“But it doesn’t just boil down to statistics,” he said. “It boils down to a collection of things, like how the community perceives it.
“I want to let them be a part of this.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.